Amanda Palmer / Estradasphere @ Berbati’s Pan, Portland

October 29th, 2007

My story begins on Saturday, October 20th, when I happened to surf over to The End Records’s website (I think to find information on the new album from Anneke van Giersbergen) and saw this: “ESTRADASPHERE to perform West Coast dates with Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls)”. What?!? Both acts are easily in my current top-20 list of favorite bands, but more importantly, they’re probably both in my top-5 list of favorite live bands. And they’re playing TOGETHER?!? Never in a million years would I have guessed the two bands would have anything to do with each other; I can’t imagine too many other people have them both in the top 25 on their profile. I’ve been to five concerts from each of them: Estradasphere from 2001, watching them press on through (self-induced?) obscurity, and the Dresden Dolls from 2004, watching them rise from the bottom of a 4-band bill topped by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, to a headlining band selling out the 1400-capacity Vic Theater. Seeing them both together would be like seeing Iron Maiden playing with Nick Cave, or opening Christmas presents while riding the Tilt-a-Whirl, or winning a spelling bee while having sex: crazy and unexpected, but so awesome!

Ok, Neil, settle down for a second and look at the details: as far as I can tell, Estradasphere will both play a set of their own, and then act as the backing band for Amanda. They’re only doing four shows, three in Estradasphere’s home/studio in Seattle, and one in a small restaurant/club in Portland a week from now. Conveniently, you have family in Portland that you can stay with (and your brother might even want to go to the show too). And it’s on a Sunday, so you’ll only have to take one day off work. Ok, airfare. $300? Damn, that’s a lot. Can I really justify that to myself?

I realized that it could only be a one-day trip (I had to stay in Chicago on Friday and Saturday to see Therion and Nightwish concerts), and then I also checked out some of Amanda Palmer’s solo songs, and wasn’t especially impressed. So that made me pull back a bit. But in the end, some good advice friends and skilled attempts to justify it to myself (“It’s been a while since you’ve traveled to see a show”, “People pay that kind of money all the time to far crappier bands in far crappier places”, etc.) made me pull the trigger. I bought three tickets: $300 for the flight, and two $12 tickets to the show for me and my brother.

The ironic thing is that I sometimes justify all the time I spend searching through obscure music by calling it a time-is-money tradeoff: rather than simply liking what radio wants me to like, and then paying out the nose for the privilege of seeing those celebrities perform, I find the unpopular stuff that’s just as good (and usually better) than anything mainstream, and then I can see it performed up close and personal for hardly any money at all. Well, I’d still be seeing these guys close, but the money-saving part of the plan completely backfired in this case!

It was an over-21, late-starting show: 11:30pm in Chicago time, which is what I was operating on, especially after catching less than five hours of sleep between the Nightwish show and my flight out in the morning. Eskimo & Sons was a late addition as an opening band. They played a chiming form of indie-rock with a piercing girl singer, coming off a bit like a less-layered Sufjan Stevens. Ok, but nothing that got me too excited. But when Amanda stepped onstage (wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt) to introduce Estradasphere, I woke right up.

Estradasphere’s set seemed like a perfectly orchestrated, compressed overview of everything they’re about; being an opening band is relatively rare for them, so it was probably a good way to advertise themselves to people who didn’t know them (even though there weren’t more than 70-80 people in the place to advertise to). We got the gypsy-metal (“Smuggled Mutation”), video-game music (Zelda), the hilarious “Rainbows & Unicorns”, some covers, including a religious number and “The Rainbow Connection” (did they know the Dresden Dolls have done this too?), teases (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and “Sweet Child o’ Mine”‘s guitar solo played on violin), and even an old one (the title track from ‘Buck Fever’). The last time I saw them they played the entire ‘Palace of Mirrors’ album, which was great, but it was nice to see them back to mixing it up again. And they pulled it all off even though they were missing their shamisen/guitar player. They must have also been missing a distortion pedal; that, or they just made a conscious decision to un-metal all the metal guitar parts. Either way, it made for a very cool version of “The Return”, which was played with a completely different arrangement from its normal tech-metal version. Man, I love seeing Estradasphere so much that them alone would have almost been worth the $300. The rest of the crowd seemed to dig it too.

Then after a break, the five Estradaspherians reappeared and began to play the Dresden Dolls’ “Missed Me”. Eventually Amanda came out, now all costumed and made up, to complete a piano-free version of the song. One of my worries was that I would travel all the way to Portland and the bands would just do half-assed, short, unfocused sets, but clearly they had thought this out and were making a serious show of it. That was the only Dolls song, so then the rest of the set was made of songs from Amanda’s upcoming solo album, and covers: two cabaret numbers from Brecht, one from Madonna, and the second G’n’R reference of the night: “Patience” (complete with whistling and mandolin solo from Timb!) The solo songs, which I had been a bit apprehensive about, sounded instantly familiar and excellent to me, even though I had only heard them once before. Silly me for being a doubter. Especially “Astronaut” and “Blake Says” stood out to me. For the latter, Amanda disappeared from the stage, only to reappear in black-and-white on the projector screen when the band started playing. After looking around for a while, the audience found her sitting and singing at the bar in the corner of the room. She ordered a drink and then slowly made her way back across the room, with the camera following her the whole time. It was a very cool concept, watching a music video that was being performed live. She repeated the trick a couple more times, once walking across the top of a bar, and another time sitting between two generous audience members on a bench. Definitely not something you see every day at a concert.

The mix of the two acts was perfect, although Estradsphere is so darn good that they’d probably sound great backing anyone from Manilow to Mudvayne. Amanda’s voice was the best that I’ve heard it in a while. And watching the fun they had interacting, it suddenly made perfect sense that the two found each other. They both have a broad knowledge and interest in music, they both can convincingly pull off serious and silly in the same set, and most importantly, they both have the increasingly rare skill-set that makes truly great live musicians: the ability and desire to change up their songs, improvise, and make it always feel fresh and alive. Juxtaposed against the orchestral metal shows I had seen the nights before, where everything is locked to a click-track and half the music is flown in from a computer, this aspect really jumped out at me. It was great to once again see music with room to breathe.

At one point Amanda apologized for not doing anything to promote the concert, but I have to imagine it was somewhat intentional. Clearly she still has the heart of a pretentious artist (meant in the best possible way!), but I’m sure it’s rather difficult to express that side of yourself once you’ve become famous and are normally playing in sold out, corporate venues. So this was a good chance to slum it for a bit, and us few fanboys and girls who check the Internet were lucky enough to not just see it, but participate.

So yeah, it was totally worth the money. Even if they do follow through with their claim to do a proper tour in the spring. It would probably be hard to make those shows into such a close-up experience, though I wouldn’t mind if they tried. I’m pretty sure I’ll never get tired of seeing either of them, so I’ll take as many chances as I can get to see them both together. Maybe they’ll even bring Iron Maiden with them next time.

Nightwish / Paradise Lost @ House of Blues

October 28th, 2007

We arrived at the venue to see a long line stretching down Dearborn onto the bridge over the Chicago River. I went in the other door to pick up a ticket for the upcoming Amon Amarth concert (which saved me $11.03 vs. Ticketmaster!), and could already hear a band start playing upstairs. Maybe there’s a local opener? Nope, that sounds like Paradise Lost playing already. Crap. I’m not even sure if we’d made it to the 8pm listed start time yet. So then it was back outside to the end of the line, which moved like molasses. When we finally made it through, I dashed up just in time to see them play their last song. At least it was a song I like (“Say Just Words”). The sound seemed really rumbly and muddy, so maybe I didn’t miss that much, but I would have liked the opportunity to judge for myself.

Nightwish came right out of the gate with great sound, and Annette, the new singer, seemed to have the crowd won over in no time. She would sound a bit strained on some of the high parts, but overall, her vocals were excellent throughout the night. In contrast to Tarja’s Opera Ice Queen persona, Annette is a sprightly little thing bouncing around the stage, thankfully stopping just short of embarrassing dance moves or attempts at “metal” poses. It’s funny that after seeing Therion the night before, this is two bands in a row who have switched from cold to warm performances out of their vocalists. I really liked Tarja’s performance the one time I saw her with Nightwish, so one approach isn’t better than the other; it’s just nice to see a different approach. That said, I might have been most impressed by Annette’s pained emotional display during one of the more quiet, introspective songs. I’m pretty sure Tarja would have demanded in-ear monitors that actually fit though, unlike Annette’s that were stuck in with white strips of tape across her ears. Since she was wearing a corset, that means I saw three corset-wearing female metal singers in two nights. C’mon ladies, try something new!

Of course, the new Nightwish presents further proof of the “It’s the songs, not the singer” theory, so pretty much any singer could sing the hooks that Tuomas writes and it would still sound great. I could feel the floor bouncing from the first notes of “Bye Bye Beautiful”, and the sold-out crowd kept it going for most of the night, although, rather surprisingly, a mosh pit never broke out. There were moments between songs where the crowd got nearly silent, which seems odd for a room full of so many obviously-dedicated fans, but maybe they were just knocked speechless or something. It probably didn’t help that the pre-scheduled banter from Marco and Annette usually didn’t make any sense (Annette was rightly quite impressed with the building though). Overall I didn’t see nearly as many young people as I was expecting; maybe us old folks beat them to the tickets.

One thing I want to know is how Tuomas decides what he should play on his keyboards. It seems so pointless to play one particular melody or atmospheric “ooh ahh” part live when there are dozens of pre-recorded backing tracks already filling out the sound. He could play nothing at all and no one would notice. Heck, for all I know, maybe he is faking it. That’s the most annoying thing about seeing heavily-orchestrated bands like this perform “live”: it never feels especially live, with all the sound coming from who-knows-where, and everyone locked down the tempo of the click-track (though Nightwish is good at projecting energy despite those shackles). I think Tuomas should just stand in front like an orchestra conductor and conduct his band, that would be a nice twist.

Despite that annoyance (or maybe because of it?), the band comes off as one of the most “pro” bands that I’ve seen, though maybe not quite to the level they were with Tarja. Still, it’s clear from their stage presence that they’re now an arena-sized band in Europe, so it’s nice to be able to get their American “discount” and see them at relatively small places. I’ll certainly check ’em out again when they come back to Mokena in the spring.

Therion / Aesma Daeva @ The Pearl Room

October 27th, 2007

Minneapolis’s Aesma Daeva apparently serves as the farm league for the European operatic metal scene. Their previous singer, Melissa Ferlaak, was called up to the big leagues a couple years ago to sing with Visions of Atlantis, and their current singer, Lori Lewis, is now doing her rookie season as a huge part of Therion’s live incarnation. I saw the band perform years ago at a Milwaukee Metalfest (the sexiest performance by a female vocalist I’ve ever seen), but the 2007 version is a completely different band. From industrial-tinged avant-garde to symphonic doom, from two guitars and drums to a normal band lineup, and mainman John Prassas bucked the trend and went from short hair to full-length metal-man hair. Their latest album is an easier listen than their previous stuff, and they were smart enough to play all their best songs from it (particularly the ones that have a looping woodwind figure backing them, like “Artemis” and “The Loon”). Nice headbangable epic doom stuff, although for some reason the crowd seemed completely indifferent. Lewis is a hell of a singer (I finally realized she sounds almost exactly like Helena Michaelsen from the first Trail of Tears album, especially in the lower register), but an unfortunately awkward frontwoman. Hint: talk about the song you’re about to play, not the one you just finished! To her credit, she’s one of the only people to actually recognize that The Pearl Room is nowhere near Chicago (“Is there anyone here actually from Mokena?”) They finished with Lewis doing an admirable Kate Bush impression on a cover that probably no one knew (I didn’t recognize it, and I even know some Kate Bush!), and then a Mozart aria that even fewer people knew, but they did finally wake up the crowd a little bit.

Therion came out in the same basic structure as their last time around (four metal guys playing instruments, and four vocalists), but with a vastly different approach. Instead of the “we’re too cool for you” stoic opera singers, this new set of vocalists theatrically stalks the stage and works the crowd. For example, “The Perennial Sophia” featured opera-like romantic play-acting between Snowy Shaw and wild-eyed Katarina, which was only slightly spoiled by Snowy’s inability to resist the reach-around tit-squeeze. Even Lori Lewis was a far more impressive stage presence than she was in her own band (she even looked a lot hotter!) My conspiracy theory is that Therion forces her sandbag her act for Aesma Daeva (“we can’t have you upstaging us, dammit!!”) Being the pros that they are, they performed with all the animation required to reach a 10,000-person crowd, even though they were only playing to a room of only 200-300.

So although the show was really impressive and something I’ve never quite seen before in a metal context, I wasn’t quite feeling it as much this time as I had the last time around. That might be because it wasn’t “the first time” anymore, or more likely, because the stuff from “Gothic Kabbalah” just isn’t that great. But then once they got through the drum solo (yeah, having the two male singers whack a drum made it slightly more interesting, but it’s still a drum solo, ugh), things really took off. Their last six songs are basically unbeatable: “Muspelheim” (great acting!), “…Sodom and Gomorrah” (worth the admission for this song alone), and “Ginnungagap” closed out the normal set, and then “Lemuria” (the best song from those sessions), “Cults of the Shadow” and “To Mega Therion” made for a heck of an encore. Why couldn’t we get the “‘Theli’ played in it’s entirety” set in the US, you jerks?!?